|CONTROLLING THE CANAL|
|Does handing over the Panama Canal pose national security dangers to the United States? William Ratliff of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and John J. Tierney of The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., respond to your questions.|
R. Lawson, of Seal Rock, OR, asks:
There should be no question of who controls the Panama Canal. The canal was built by the U.S., was always owned by the U.S., and should have been retained by the U.S. The U.S. title to the Panama Canal is more certain than its title to Texas or California, not to mention Hawaii. If we want to give it away we should give it to Colombia, who has more right to it than Panama. There would be no Panama without Teddy Roosevelt. What is the response of the experts?
There is now no question who controls the canal: Panama does. In 1977 President Carter made the handover a top priority issue; his NSC chief Zbigniew Brzezinski called it "a necessary precondition for a more mature and historically more just relationship with Central America." Many in the United States opposed the treaty then and do today. Still the treaty was signed, Americans should accept it and deal rationally with legitimate security concerns and casting the phony ones aside.
The term used officially in Panama for the handover -- "transferencia" -- obliquely recognizes some of your points. That is, we can not "return" a canal that didn't exist until we built it to a country that didn't exist until we helped found it. So we "transferred" it. Colombia lost out almost a century ago when its legislature refused to follow the recommendation of its negotiators and give the United States the concession it had previously given France. So the U.S. supported a Panama independence movement in exchange for the concessions "in perpetuity" it couldn't get from Colombia. It is true that the U.S. title to the canal was at least as good as its title to Texas. But realistically, we can't keep the canal now and won't give it back to Colombia any more than we will give Texas back to Mexico -- or the United States back to the Indians, for that matter.
J. Tierney responds:
The question reflects the view held by many Americans during the 1978 treaty debates. Senator Strom Thurmond expressed it as follows: "We on it, title in fee simple."
The issue of American sovereignty, however, was always a myth. Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who wrote the 1903 treaty in favor of the U.S. testified that "The United States, without becoming sovereign, received the exclusive use of the rights of sovereignty " The words of the original treaty allowed the U.S. to use the Canal "as if it were sovereign," later expressed in President William Howard Taft's famous phrase "titular sovereignty."
Usage over the century reflected the distinctions between Federal rule of the several states and ownership over foreign property, namely the Canal Zone:
Whether or not the Canal "should have been retained by the U.S." is a judgement call and the jury is still out on that. In a perfect world, I would agree with the writer, but the political pressures for a transfer were severe in 1977 and had been developing for decades. The judgement of U.S. authorities -- with Senate concurrence -- was that retention was not worth the political and military price which the situation demanded.